Restraint(s)

‘Restraint(s).’ Ken Unsworth & Australian Dance Artists

28 October 2017, Ken Unsworth Studios, Alexandria (Sydney)

I am a long-term admirer of Ken Unsworth’s sculpture, especially his various suspended stones sculptures. I have often wondered what it would be like to give those stones a push to see what motion would ensue. Well, Restraint(s), a work that should probably be described as performance art, put my mind at ease to a certain extent. Unsworth clearly enjoys making sculpture and installations that move, or can be moved. No doubt the suspended stones would move too, although I don’t think I’ll be trying it out any time soon!

Unsworth has worked with the four dancers of Australian Dance Artists—Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Ross Philip, and their associate Norman Hall—over several years, most recently using his Alexandria studios as a performing space. Restraint(s) showcased several Unsworth objects that, as the title of the work suggests, put various restraints on the dancers, although the dancers never looked restrained. They simply used each sculpture/installation in an exploratory manner—how can the body move within or around a moving three-dimensional item or items. In the opening section they pushed the very pushable boundaries of a kind of boxing ring made up of stretch ropes. This was, for me anyway, the least interesting of the several sections that made up the evening.

Susan Barling and Anca Frankenhaeuser in 'Restraint(s)', 2017. Photo: © Mike Buick

Susan Barling and Anca Frankenhaeuser in Restraint(s), 2017. Photo: © Mike Buick

Much more interesting was an early section performed by Susan Barling and Anca Frankenhaeuser in which they engaged with a very large golden ring (a bit like a circus cyr wheel), which changed colour at various times. The wheel was slowly lowered from an exposed part of the ceiling that revealed a machine-for-lowering-and-manipulating-rings-and-other-things. The ring was at times in mid-air, parallel to the floor, but at other times was manipulated from the hole in the ceiling so that it stood on edge, vertical to the floor. Barling and Frankenhaeuser wore simple, long-ish dresses that had a hoop inserted into the circular hemline, thus mirroring Unsworth’s ring. They moved around, alongside, inside and over the ring, depending on how it was positioned. Towards the end they flung their skirts up so that the ring in the hemline framed their faces. A very interesting variation on a cyr wheel performance.

I also enjoyed a surprising section involving two sliding floor boards that moved in opposite directions across the width of the performing space. Initially they simply seemed like regular floor boards but, as Barling and Frankenhaeuser began to pose on them, the boards began to move. The dancers’ poses became varied—sometimes they stood, other times they reclined as they took a ride back and forth across the space. Ross Philip joined them and began to pose with them, over them, and around them. This became an exercise in maintaining one’s balance and keeping within one’s space.

Then towards the end there was a somewhat mysterious section that involved Patrick Harding-Irmer and three white (plaster?), human-sized dummies. Harding-Irmer, dressed in black trunks and black caftan with hood, and carrying a long black stick, danced around the dummies, occasionally moving them to another position in the space, sometimes pushing and balancing them with his stick, and occasionally mirroring their various static poses.  This section segued seamlessly into the finale when a large structure, consisting of a circular platform holding four tall glass panels, with a peacock etched on each one, was pushed into the space and connected to that hole in the ceiling. The glass panels divided the structure into quarters and as it spun around, Harding-Irmer was joined by the other three dancers, also dressed in black, and the company dashed in and out of the spinning spaces.

Susan Barling and Ross Philip in 'Restraint(s)', 2017. Photo: © Mike Buick

Susan Barling and Ross Philip in Restraint(s), 2017. Photo: © Mike Buick

I guess what I really enjoyed about this show was its coherent concept and the versatility with which the concept was presented. I definitely found some sections more interesting to watch than others. The one that had the most inventive and polished movement came from Barling and Philip who worked like aerial artists in a forest of hanging ropes. But every section had been thought through carefully. The use of colour, the costume design, the music (original score by Kate Moore) all focussed on the concept. And there was an innate and refreshing simplicity in how the evening was strung together. Initially I thought it might be a little like the experimental performance art that people like Rauschenberg, Cunningham, Cage (and others) were making in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. And in many respects it was, except that it was not quite so wacky. There was coherence amid the eccentricity. Well done!

Michelle Potter, 30 October 2017

Anca Frankenhaeuser in 'Toccata', BOLD Festival. National Portrait Gallery, 2017

BOLD dances. National Portrait Gallery

10 March 2017, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Canberra’s first BOLD Festival, a varied program of dance events over the period 8–12 March 2017, offered a wide-ranging series of activities. Those activities included performances in a variety of styles, as well as talks and discussions on a variety of topics. Dancers showed a range of skill sets and artists came from across the country. The Festival culminated with a performance, To boldly go…, featuring, again, a wide variety of artists.

For me, however, the surprise highlight was a selection of dances performed at the National Portrait Gallery on 10 March. I guess I am constantly fascinated by what dance looks like in the space of Gordon Darling Hall, which is really the entrance lobby for the Portrait Gallery. I love watching how choreographers make their work fit into this space.

The performances began in the afternoon and, as has been the custom at the National Portrait Gallery, there were three short sessions of a program that consisted of two works. Each short session began with Kym King’s Time, danced by Judy Leech and Rosemary Simons, and concluded with a solo by Katrina Rank, My Body is an Etching 2. Neither was choreographically complex but both had emphasis on small details, which were a pleasure to watch in the intimate space available. I especially enjoyed Rank’s solo, which concerned the notion that a dancer’s body is marked by the individual movements that, across time, have affected that body in some way. As Rank remarked in her program notes, those marks consist of ‘intersecting grooves, gouges, grazes and feather like marks’. To add a visible emphasis to her thoughts, Rank had added a subtle yet clear representation of those etched marks onto parts of her body—down her legs, along her arms and extending up the side of her neck.

Katrina Rank in My Body is an Etching 2. BOLD Festival, 2017. National Portrait Gallery

An early evening session was a set of five works. Tammi Gissell reprised a section from Magnificus, magnificus, a work concerning the red-tailed black cockatoo and choreographed by Gissell herself with directorial input from Liz Lea. Gissell is a strong dancer and her performances are always remarkably emotion-filled. The background to Magnificus, magnifcus, which was made in 2013, is discussed at this link.

In an earlier session at the National Film and Sound Archive that morning, Gissell had talked about the fact that she had been advised by her grandmother not to mess with the black cockatoo and, as she turned her back on the audience, not only did the strip of red in her costume remind us of the black cockatoo’s flaming red tail, but her tensed hands reminded us of the warning. Then, as she stalked off I thought what a wonderful Carabosse she would make!

Tammi Gissell in an excerpt from 'Magnificus, magnificus'. Canberra, 2017
Tammi Gissell in an excerpt from 'Magnificus, magnificus'. Canberra, 2017

Tammi Gissell in an extract from Magnificus, magnificus. BOLD Festival, 2017. National Portrait Gallery

The Magnificus, magnificus extract was preceded by Plastic Time, a work choreographed by Peng Hsiao-yin, artistic director of the Taiwanese dance company Danceology, and danced by Peng and three of her performers. It was amusing to watch the dancers producing, time and time again, plastic bags and other such items from surprising places—and sometimes using them in surprising ways. One dancer looked as though he was using a long strip of plastic as dental floss, for example. But at the same time, Plastic Time made a pertinent political statement about the pollution of our environment.

Then followed three short pieces from Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer. I especially enjoyed Viola Duet in which Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer danced together and yet stayed apart. Their connection with each other, achieved through eye contact, glances towards each other, and changing facial expressions, was remarkable and exceptionally moving.

Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer in Viola Duet. BOLD Festival, 2017. National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery showing was a personal favourite. I am sure others would have their own favourites from BOLD, which was the brainchild of independent artist, Liz Lea. I am amazed at what was accomplished over those five days, given that NO external funding was forthcoming for the Festival.

Michelle Potter, 17 March 2017

Featured image: Anca Frankenhaeuser in Toccata. BOLD Festival, 2017. National Portrait Gallery

Anca Frankenhaeuser in 'Toccata', BOLD Festival. National Portrait Gallery, 2017

All photos: Michelle Potter

(l-r) Julia Cotton, Patrick-Harding-Irmer, Elle Cahill and Ance Frankenhaueser in 'Quartet for David', 2016.

‘Dances for David’. National Portrait Gallery

15 October 2016. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

The National Portrait Gallery is currently showing a number of images from its performing arts collection—mainly images of dancers but also musicians and designers. Along with Jenny Sages’ wonderful image of Irina Baronova ‘passing on the torch’ to an unknown (seen from the back only) young dancer, there are images of Steven Heathcote, Graeme Murphy, Meryl Tankard, Russell Page, Stephen Page, Marilyn Rowe (not the Gallery’s best acquisition I have to say), Kenneth Rowell, Sidney Nolan, Peter Sculthorpe, and others. They are there to support a new acquisition, a photographic portrait of artistic director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister, by Peter Brew-Bevan.

National Portrait Gallery performing arts images

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. A selection of performing arts images on display, October 2016

Portrait of David McAllister by David Brew-Bevan, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Portrait of David McAllister by Peter Brew-Bevan, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

And as has been happening with a certain frequency recently, the National Portrait Gallery commissioned four dancers, Elle Cahill, Julia Cotton, Anca Frankenhaeuser, and Patrick Harding-Irmer, to present a short program of dances to celebrate the acquisition. There were four dances in all: Solo from steppingstone by Patrick Harding-Irmer, Duet for David by Julia Cotton and Elle Cahill, Ebba by Anca Frankenhaeuser, and Quartet for David by all four dancers. All dances had a certain technical simplicity to them, which is not to deny their appropriateness for the occasion.

Two of the pieces, those featuring Harding-Irmer, seemed to refer specifically to McAllister. The duet from Cotton and Cahill seemed to be more of a dedication to the art that McAllister has promoted throughout his career, while the connection that Frankenhaeuser’s quite beautiful but mysterious solo with a hanging garment had to McAllister wasn’t all that clear to me.

Harding-Irmer’s Solo was a work of poses. Some were quite a simple ballet positions—first position of the feet, fifth positions of the arms. for example. We all start our careers learning the basics. As the piece progressed the poses became more introspective but always searchingly so. And Harding-Irmer, impeccably dressed in suit and tie (although he did remove the coat at one stage), suggested that a dancer’s life moves more and more into a complexity of thought.

Patrick Harding-Irmer in Solo from steppingstones, National Portrait Gallery, 2016
Anca Frankenhaueser in Ebba, National Portrait Gallery, 2016

(left) Patrick Harding-Irmer in Solo from stepping stones; (right) Anca Frankenhaeuser in Ebba. Photos: Michelle Potter

Duet for David was the most balletic of the dances and in many respects it reminded me of the Jenny Sages portrait of Baronova ‘passing on the baton’. Cahill’s youth in relation to Cotton (and Harding-Irmer and Frankenhaeuser) was clear and, as Cahill and Cotton danced together, they seemed to change places in the performing space. There was a lovely entrance by Cahill followed by a quiet arrival from Cotton, who then seemed to take the dominant position. But as they circled each other, dancing simple but fluid and attractive steps in differing spatial patterns, Cahill came to the fore, as if representing the future of classical dance.

Julia Cotton and Elle Cahill in Duet for David, National Portrait Gallery, 2016

Julia Cotton and Elle Cahill in Duet for David, National Portrait Gallery, 2016. Photo: Michelle Potter

But if Duet for David was the most balletic in a technical sense, the closing piece, Quartet for David, was filled poses (again) that recalled the manner of McAllister in the classroom or rehearsal process, along with references to ballets with which McAllister might be identified. From Swan Lake, for example, we had a reference to the linked arms of the Four Little Swans and from The Sleeping Beauty there was a nod to the Rose Adagio. And the final moment saw Harding-Irmer taking the very pose McAllister takes in the Brew-Bevan portrait.

Finale, Dances for David, National Portrait Gallery, 2016

Finale from Quartet for David, National Portrait Gallery, 2016. Back row (l-r) Julia Cotton, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser; in front Elle Cahill. Photo: Michelle Potter

What was especially attractive about this show was the element of time that it encompassed—time past, time present, and time future all seemed to have a place. But I wish I knew more about Frankenhaeuser’s Ebba. For the first time in my experience with these Portrait Gallery shows there was a mini printed program, which listed the names of the works and the creatives behind them—a welcome initiative. I am dead against judging a work according to the artist’s intention, but I would have liked a bit more information. A search online didn’t help all that much.

Dance in Canberra is flourishing as a result of this kind of show. And it is refreshingly ‘underground’ in the sense that it doesn’t rely on the fads and puffery of popular mainstream organisations. Good, honest dance with something to say.

Michelle Potter, 17 October 2016

Featured image: (l-r) Julia Cotton, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Elle Cahill and Anca Frankenhaeuser in Quartet for David, 2016.

(l-r) Julia Cotton, Patrick-Harding-Irmer, Elle Cahill and Anca Frankenhaueser in 'Quartet for David', 2016.